From a Parisian Kitchen and Favorite Food Blogger
Oh, I had really wanted to love this book. I'm a long-time fan of Clotilde Dusouilier, the author of Chocolate & Zucchini (Broadway Books, $18.95), who is a twenty-something Parisian whose blog by the same name is one of the most popular food destinations on the web. Unfortunately, while there are many helpful, inspiring and charming aspects of this 244-page paperback, the book is not completely successful. I'll explain in a moment.
Chocolate & Zucchini is both a cookbook as well as a window into what it is like to be young, and living and cooking in Paris. The book is filled with inspiring photographs, also taken by Ms. Dusouilier, of Parisian markets, ingredients and finished dishes. Organized into three main sections -- Simplicity, Entertaining and Sweet Things -- it is full of story telling and advice about French food and home cooking, as well as about 75 recipes.
The appeal of Ms. Dusouilier's blog is how she lets us vicariously live her Parisian life as she roams the farmers markets and food shops across the City of Lights. The ingredients inspire her to make meals for herself and her boyfriend, Maxence, as well as their many friends. We hear about what inspires her: her mother's cooking, the two years she lived in California, and France's great food culture. She is gifted at storytelling and every story either begins or ends with food and cooking.
This book is perfect for those among you who buy cookbooks to read and not necessarily for its recipes. If that is you, and especially if you love Paris, Chocolate & Zucchini will be a favorite because every section and each recipe includes a charming and useful tale. She begins the book with her cooking philosophy, one that is based on great ingredients, creativity and curiosity. She has tips for stocking a pantry and makes frequent suggestions for how to adapt recipes and make ingredient substitutions. Ms. Dusouilier is clearly a practiced city cook with a superb palate and that makes much of her book a great choice for others like her, even if we live in New York and not Paris.
But then there are the recipes.
Test Driving the Recipes
Here is where I was consistently disappointed. The back of the book quotes The Los Angeles Times as saying that the recipes are "simple, charming and fun." I strongly disagree.
I often test a cookbook by making salads and here I made three: Salade de Haricots Vert, Noix de Pécan et Jambon Cru (green bean salad with pecans and dry cured ham), Carpaccio de Courgette au Vinaigre de Framboise (zucchini carpaccio with raspberry vinegar) and Rémoulade de Céleri aux Oeufs de Truite (celeriac rémoulade with trout roe).
The three recipes share two major negative traits and looking throughout the book these problems are not unique to salads. First, she adds ingredients and effort that don't add to flavor, appearance or overall success. In fact, the result is just the opposite. The recipes are often fussy and could be simplified or revised to simply taste better. Second -- and this is connected to my first complaint -- in attempting to have the recipes be special or different, she causes the recipes to become much more time consuming and much more costly to make. I'll be specific.
The Salade de Haricots Vert combines steamed French beans with coarsely chopped flat-leafed parsley, pieces of dry-cured ham (I used prosciutto), toasted chopped pecans and vinaigrette. There were lots of steps and lots of chopping and in total, it took about 45 minutes for me to prepare the salad (many of the recipes in the book indicate an estimated prep time but this one, oddly, did not). The chopped parsley added no flavor and in fact, ended up as dark oily bits against the green beans which were only slightly lighter in color. The pecans, which are higher in fat than most nuts and costly to buy, had to be toasted and chopped, and added an odd, not-exactly-pleasant crunch to the tender green beans. The combination of ham and cider vinaigrette and the beans, however, was inspired and if I were to make it again, I'd put just those three elements together, leaving out the nuts and parsley -- cutting the cost, production time and calories in less than half.
I had expected to love the Carpaccio de Courgette because I love raw zucchini, especially when sliced paper thin and combined in a salad. In this recipe, the thin slices are arranged in a circular pattern on individual serving plates, then drizzled with a raspberry vinegar dressing and sprinkled with crumbled goat cheese and a little thyme. The instruction to make individual servings not only added a huge amount of prep time, but also made it difficult to get the dressing onto each piece of zucchini. Plus, because each slice was paper thin, the arrangement put barely a quarter cup of zucchini on each plate. I gave up in frustration and put all the slices together in a large serving bowl, tossed with the dressing, thyme and goat cheese. The pink tinge of the raspberry vinaigrette gave the zucchini a slightly blood-stained appearance which was not very appetizing and I think goat cheese is too strong a flavor for the delicate raw zucchini. Again, a lot of work with a disappointing pay off.
Finally, the Rémoulade de Céleri was the biggest disappointment. This is a dish that I have made for years and to train my palate to know a good one, have eaten it in many restaurants both in New York and Paris. In Ms. Dusoulier's version, she substitutes the traditional mayonnaise-mustard dressing with a yogurt-mustard-dill version. The ingredients together were costly -- celery root, full-fat Greek-style yogurt, fresh dill (I had to buy a whole bunch just to get a half-tablespoon of minced dill) and fish roe (I bought 4 oz. of salmon roe for $10). She said she preferred this yogurt-based dressing because it is lighter, but full-fat yogurt and mayonnaise, the traditional base of rémoulade, are about equal in calories and fat. I used a quarter of the dill that the recipe called for but still found that the final dish tasted entirely of dill. The salmon roe looked pretty on top of each serving but the salty-fish taste unpleasantly collided with the tangy yogurt-dill combo. Neither my husband nor I finished our portions and I threw the rest away.
I was prepared to make about five of her recipes but stopped after making only three because I saw a consistent pattern in the rest of the book: lots of ingredients, lots of steps, and lots of production without a reason for how all this fuss would add to flavor or satisfaction. I love making French food and my culinary school training was in the classic French repertoire, but I don't think more is always better, especially for home cooks who have to factor in the time and expense to acquire ingredients as well as the time to prepare a dish.
Chocolate & Zucchini is not without its charm and inspiration. Buy it to read and to dream about Paris. If you're planning a cooking trip to Paris, by all means, have it with you for tips about shopping in Parisian markets and food shops. But also bring another cookbook with you (Patricia Wells' Bistro Cooking or The Paris Cookbook are both winning) for the recipes. You'll eat much better if you do.